At Last: Long-term plan in place for LHC weed-harvest funding

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere will still be water quality samples to take and resident concerns to address, but the issue of securing funding for the annual weed harvest will no longer be a constant, nagging part of the Lake Hopatcong Commission’s agenda, commission chairman Russ Felter said at Monday’s meeting at the Roxbury Municipal Building.

Logistics are still being finalized, but there has been an agreement with the state to make this summer’s last-minute solution—the weed-harvest workers becoming state employees through Hopatcong State Park—a permanent plan to pay for the weed harvest.

“[The state is] basically paying the guys, paying for maintenance, and paying for the harvest,” Felter said. “There are still details to work out, but they made that commitment to us.”

The specifics of the plan aren’t all in place yet; the commission was still waiting on some information from the attorney general’s office regarding insurance issues, particularly as they relate to the weed-harvest equipment, which is owned by the Lake Hopatcong Commission. One possibility is for the state to lease the harvesters from the commission for an inconsequential sum (such as one dollar a year), which would both keep the ownership with the commission and allow for non-commission workers to use it.

The plan is for the state to hire six full-time seasonal weed-harvest employees and one full-time year-round foreman, to be employed through Hopatcong State Park. The commission would no longer be responsible for those salaries, or for insuring the weed-harvest equipment—an expense that has taken a large bite out of the commission’s bank account. In addition, all but the two smallest harvesters and a dump truck will fit inside the storage building in Franklin once construction is complete, and Felter said there’s the possibility that the equipment that doesn’t fit there will be kept in the Saffin building on Weldon Road, helping to ensure the harvesters are protected from the winter weather.

The issue of the harvester ownership was a part of the conversation on Monday, too, as Lake Hopatcong resident Tim Clancy expressed concern that the commission was risking losing its talent and machinery to other lakes around the state. “Once this [harvesting effort] is owned by the state, is it guaranteed that this skilled staff and equipment is not going to be taken from us?” Clancy asked. “I’m just concerned about our investment, that it stays here.”

Felter assured residents and commissioners that part of the agreement with Gov. Chris Christie and state officials was that the equipment would remain on Lake Hopatcong. “There’s a whole conspiracy out there that the harvesters are going all over the state,” Felter said. “That’s not happening. They were purchased for use on Lake Hopatcong and they’re staying here.”

Kerry Kirk Pflugh, who represents the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection on the commission, reaffirmed that commitment. “When I raised this issue back in Trenton, everybody said, ‘Why would we even do that?’” she said. “The goal is to not have you pay for the harvesting program. That was the reason the governor came to this agreement with [Felter] and the commission. The idea is so that the commission does not have to bankrupt itself to pay for the harvest.”

LHC_-_Oct_2011The specific roles of the commission, the Hopatcong State Park employees, and the officials in Trenton weren’t finalized yet, but commissioners and commission administrator Donna Macalle-Holly said that although the state would employ the workers, the commission would still be kept up to date on the weed-harvest activities and be a part of the discussion when it comes to scheduling. “I think the commission should have a serious role,” commissioner Daniel McCarthy said. “If there’s a problem, people come here.”

Felter said commissioners would have to sit down in the coming months and redefine the commission’s mission, in light of the fact that a major part of its operations have been taken out of the equation. “We have a commitment to things other than weed harvesting,” he said. “I keep hearing from people that the state is doing the harvesting, and now  [the commission] has nothing to do. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Figuring out how to address those things, such as stormwater management and water quality monitoring—and how to work best with towns, the state, and nonprofit groups—will be of paramount importance, Felter said, now that the issue of weed-harvest funding, which has been a constant struggle for the commission, is no longer on the table. “The state stepped up and said, ‘we’re going to take the harvest off your hands and hire these workers,’” Felter said. “Nobody’s giving the harvesters to them. We need to trust each other here. This is for Lake Hopatcong.”

In other news:

  • The commission stood for its moment of silence to pay respects to Mt. Arlington Police Officer Joseph Wargo, 38, who was killed in a motor vehicle crash early Sunday morning in the line of duty. Flags around the area were at half-mast on Monday in honor of Wargo, and flags will be lowered statewide in his honor on Wednesday.
  • The 26-inch lake drawdown is scheduled to begin on Nov. 12 if the lake is below the 9-foot mark at that time, Macalle-Holly reported. Because there is a high probability that the lake will be above the 9-foot mark at that time, she said the drawdown might begin earlier than that. (The lake was at the 9.08-foot mark on Tuesday morning, but heavy rain is in the forecast.)
  • With regard to the high water around the lake in the last month or so, commissioner Mike Brunson expressed concern about blocked drainage in catch basins around the lake, especially in light of a heavy rain forecast this week. “You can drive by and see the piles of debris [in the basins],” he said. He encouraged commissioners to remind their towns and counties to keep them cleared out before any more flooding occurs.
  • Commissioner Joel Servoss mentioned that he had heard about a barefoot skier who hit dock timber while skiing, and reiterated Hopatcong resident Fred Steinbaum’s request for a collection station for lake debris. “People won’t take debris out of the lake because there’s no place to put it,” Servoss said. Felter said if anyone had trouble disposing of dock timber or any other debris washed up from the lake, they should call Jefferson Township and he would arrange for a pick up.
  • Clancy reported that he had seen young people on JetSkis deliberately trying to kill or maim Canada geese, and had heard from others who had witnessed the same thing. “Nobody’s in love with geese, but this is on a different level,” he said. “It’s almost as if this has become a sport. We may not like them around, but we don’t want to see dead and injured birds.” Kirk Pflugh said she had heard similar reports involving swans. Macalle-Holly said that anyone witnessing such activity should report it to the State Police, and Kirk Pflugh said residents should also call their conservation office with the N.J. Department of Fish and Wildlife.
  • The commission can finally move forward with a grant for a peat biofilter at Jefferson Day Care center, Macalle-Holly reported. Also in grant-project updates, Macalle-Holly reported that Princeton Hydro was unable to complete its water-quality monitoring in September because of the high water level, but did complete it in October, and should have an end-of-season report soon.
  • Mike Smith made a presentation to the commission about monofilament fishing line recycling. A free collection program sponsored by BoatUS would prevent the lines from ending up in landfills, where they take more than 600 years to decompose, he said. Clancy, who is a director of the lake’s fishing group, the Knee Deep Club, said collection stations already exist around the lake, but offered to help fill any gaps in drop-off stations.
  • Cliff Beebe reminded commissioners that he believed any manipulation of the water level was against the law. “No one has produced any deed to Lake Hopatcong,” he said. “This whole plan… is abuse of authority.” Felter told Beebe that he had the legal right to go to court over the issue.

The next meeting of the Lake Hopatcong Commission is at 7 p.m. on Monday, November 21, at the Roxbury Municipal Buildling.

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